Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience

All smiles before the first presidential debate in 2016 | Reuters
All smiles before the first presidential debate in 2016 | Reuters

It has been more than a year since Republican Donald Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton by a considerable margin. However, as his approval ratings fall and he draws flak for his temperamental statements on social media, many people are wondering how he won against Clinton, the more seasoned politician.

In What Happened, Clinton takes readers through her experience of the 2016 presidential election, from the time she decided to run for office to election night and the immediate aftermath. Using casual, rhetorical language, she tries to remain cheerful even while discussing some very serious issues and attempts to identify where she went wrong and how she could have acted differently, conceding that in some cases — quite simply — the odds were against her. She also tries to clarify controversies that arose during her campaign: media “misinterpretations” of her statements, the email scandal, the Clinton Foundation, her health, and alleged Russian interference in the election.

Clinton touches on a few aspects on her private life, not saying much about Bill Clinton’s infidelity scandal, but lauding her husband’s qualities as a good father and grandfather and as a companion during her campaign. Her Methodist faith — a very public feature of her campaign — is evidently an integral part of her life, and she seamlessly weaves her somewhat privileged upbringing in a well-to-do family into a broader narrative about the obstacles she was confronted with as a female student, lawyer and politician.

Hillary Clinton provides a window into her mind and beliefs, but also glosses over some inconvenient truths

Elaborating on the challenges she faced that the Republicans did not, she notes that the Democrats had won consecutively in 2008 and 2012, and it was difficult for any party to hold on to the White House for more than eight years in a row; only George Bush Sr. had been able to do so after Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Second, the US was still recovering from the 2008 global credit crunch and, while she feels the Obama administration handled the aftermath of the crisis adequately, there was pent-up anger against the incumbent government. Third, there was Clinton “fatigue”: after Bill’s presidency, her own 2008 presidential campaign and subsequent appointment as Secretary of State, the American public was unwilling to see a Clinton in the Oval Office again.

But — most crucially — Clinton feels her gender played a role in her defeat before a “less experienced, less competent” candidate who just happened to be male. She believes there is sexism and misogyny in both American politics and society, and begins her onslaught on discrimination with a relatively innocuous example of how women in the public eye face social pressures that their male counterparts do not. For example, she came to see wearing make-up as unavoidable, because if she ever goes out without make-up, “it makes the news.”

In fact, she believes her husband lost the Arkansas governorship in 1980 because she wasn’t image-conscious back then — and because she still used her maiden name. She estimates that during the 2016 campaign she spent the equivalent of 600 hours on hair and make-up, and she dreams of a future where women wouldn’t need to wear make-up if they didn’t want to.

On being a woman in politics, she feels the US is perhaps not yet receptive to hearing about women’s liberation, which is why there wasn’t a demand for listening to her story of facing struggles as a woman throughout her academic and professional career. Clinton believes a lot of the hate directed at her was simply because she was a woman, because why didn’t her male campaign counterparts face the kind of bitter criticism she did? She quotes research that the more successful a man, the more likeable he is. Conversely, the more successful a woman, the less likeable she is. She talks about emotional labour; all the unpaid, uncounted, unseen work that women, overwhelmingly, do in the workplace and at home and are not appreciated enough for.

When she writes how “lady lawyers” were still a novelty in the US when she first entered the job market, it reminds one of the patronising tendency of some in Pakistan to refer to female health practitioners as “lady doctors.” But it is difficult to swallow how she uses having served as First Lady as part of her experience in politics; while the First Lady is certainly privy to many important conversations by virtue of being the president’s spouse, should this time add to her political resume?

She mentions how the Clinton Foundation’s charitable work was unfairly dragged into controversy by Trump’s camp and, on the subject of Trump, she makes no attempt to hide her dislike for her opponent or his approach to politics, where he possibly capitalised on people’s insecurities to secure votes. She feels that by the end of Barack Obama’s tenure, the American economy was performing much better than most major economies. Yes, there were a few problems, but Trump exaggerated them and “appealed to the ugliest impulses of the American national character” to increase his vote count.

On the subject of compromising in politics, Clinton expresses her discomfort with politicians so principled that they aren’t willing to talk to those with differing views, feeling this comes at the risk of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Her own political stances are clear, but in other instances, her positions are less straightforward. Her view that campaign fundraising does not necessarily compromise ethics or values is debatable. She is careful on the sensitive subject of gun control, contending that Republicans — and even Democrats — are fearful of not having the powerful gun lobby’s support. She criticises her Democratic colleague Bernie Sanders for being too soft on gun crime for this reason alone, yet herself walks on eggshells, claiming, “I have never proposed banning guns.”

Another chapter is devoted to her email scandal. To recap, while secretary of state, Clinton did not use an official email account; this resulted in a huge controversy about how sensitive information was potentially compromised. In What Happened, she admits it was an oversight, but also feels it overshadowed her campaign at the expense of more pressing issues such as purported Russian interference and her rival’s incompetence. Admitting to a complicated relationship with journalists to begin with, she feels the media bandied the email controversy around unnecessarily. Her relationship with the press deteriorated considerably during the course of the campaign, though she had identified this as a potential challenge at the very outset.

The chapter on Russia’s role in the 2016 election is perhaps the most interesting in the entire book. Clinton expresses disdain for Vladimir Putin, explaining the Russian leader and she share bad blood: in 2011, when Putin ran for presidency, there were protests in Russia that he claimed were instigated by the US and Secretary Clinton in particular. She goes on to say that Putin launched military intervention to prop up “the murderous dictator Bashar al-Assad” in Syria, and holds Trump to account for allegedly defending Putin during his election campaign.

Implying that Wikileaks worked hand in hand with the Russian government — a charge denied by the whistle-blowing website’s founder Julian Assange — she contends that Assange released emails which favoured Trump. She stops short of saying Trump knew what Russia was doing, but does say that Russia wanted Trump to win because of its desire to undermine Western democracy, and has tried this in Europe as well. Her outrage at this foreign interference in American elections is extreme, and she says that European countries handled Russian attempts to influence their elections better than the US did.

However, the author is standing on fairly shaky moral ground here. According to research conducted at Carnegie Mellon University, the US has interfered in the elections of at least 85 countries since the Second World War. But throughout her book, Clinton glosses over US political and military intervention abroad, even advocating that the US should “arm Ukraine against Russian aggression.” Similarly, her contempt for dictators and violators of human rights overlooks successive US governments’ support for other dictatorships over the years, including in Syria’s immediate neighbourhood. Finally, her solution — that there should be media controls rather than no “skeletons in one’s closet” that foreign powers can exploit — is far from ideal.

Calling 2016’s polls the most consequential elections of “our lifetimes”, Clinton is worried about America’s future under President Trump in an age when foreign countries are looking for opportunities to subvert the American way of life. Appealing to Americans and liberals to sit up, she laments that the prevalent liberal world order was established after the Second World War in defence of human rights, in defiance of totalitarianism and to deliver peace, prosperity and freedom. One cannot help but interject that perhaps, yes, all of these things, but they were just for Europe and North America. The rest of the world continued to burn these past 70 years, while the rich countries’ club didn’t really care.

What Happened is a book that is far too long and, at places, reads like a rant. Some boring chapters, such as ‘Day in the Life’ could have been shortened considerably; they simply add credence to the theory that Clinton just took her notes from her campaign diary and penned them down for the purpose of this book. She appears entirely convinced that she was the more experienced and competent candidate and should have won, had it not been for the factors above — some within and many outside her control.

However, she did not get to become president, so the book is her attempt to put her thoughts in writing for the benefit for future candidates. In particular, she hopes to inspire more women to run for political office, which is certainly a noble objective.

The reviewer is a political economist and has taught social sciences at various academic institutions in Karachi

What Happened
By Hillary Rodham Clinton
Simon & Schuster, UK
ISBN: 978-1471166945

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 25th, 2018